The inclusion of Canadians from visible minority groups in the country’s major political and socio-economic institutions is an important indicator of the success that Canada can claim as a multicultural nation, and ultimately a measure of the nature and distribution of power and influence within the country. But how to properly assess the level of inclusion for particular groups?

Where data exist, this is a straightforward task. To contextualize whether genuine integration and inclusion have occurred requires identifying the percentage of the overall Canadian population that the visible minority group occupies, and comparing that number to the group’s representation in a particular sector. A small or non-existent gap between the two percentages would suggest a more positive interpretation about the incorporation of visible minorities while a larger deficit would imply the opposite. Still, the analysis can be done using different population benchmarks. (Note that the term visible minority is used here to match the language used by Statistics Canada in the collection of census and other data.)

We wanted to take a close look at the overall percentage of visible minority candidates and MPs over the last three general elections; and the percentages per visible minority group. We also wanted to see what percentage of appointed officials (senators, judges, Governor in Council (GiC) appointees and public servants) were from visible minority groups.

There are two benchmarks used here – one is using the overall population, and the other is using the portion of the population that are citizens. The latter’s importance stems from the requirement that the candidates of political parties hold citizenship.  Similarly, the requirements for most political appointments and public service hiring are citizenship-based. While GiC appointment requirements vary by organization, given residency, knowledge and experience requirements for full-time positions, citizenship would appear to be the default criterion.

Still, looking at the broad population numbers (non-citizens included) as a potential benchmark is also a useful endeavour. Non-citizens and citizens in immigrant and visible minority groups interact in important ways. Political sociologist Irene Bloemraad in her research has noted that those unable to vote can still support minority candidates in other ways.

“They can donate time or money. They can support the institutions in which candidates build their careers before moving into politics, such as by consuming ethnic media, buying a businessperson’s products or services, or being a member of a community-based organization,” Bloemraad wrote.

“Political parties might also feel compelled to run candidates from minority communities due to the absolute size of the group, not just its size in the voting population.”

Most Canadian political parties will field visible minority candidates in ridings where the majority of the population is from those groups. Hence the citizenship status of visible minorities is largely less important than their share of the total population.

As well, political participation in Canada, save for the acts of voting and becoming a candidate, can be largely independent of citizenship. Federal rules (and nearly all provincial rules) provide for the possibility of permanent residents contributing financially to political entities. Furthermore, virtually all parties allow for permanent residents (in some cases, as young as 16 years of age) to be party members and vote in nomination meetings.  There are, in addition, many other possibilities for political engagement such as working for candidates and parties, inside and outside of election campaigns.

Another broad justification for the use of the total population as the benchmark is bound up with the symbolic representation that visible minority candidates and MPs provide for their communities, as is also the case with respect to senators, judges, public servants, and GiC appointments. All members of the community can derive symbolic or psychological satisfaction from witnessing others being included in elite settings and thus gain a sense of belonging and of being recognized as part of a multicultural and inclusive society.  Non-citizens (and all age groups) can also benefit from the substantive or responsive representation and perspectives that community-based legislators — and, possibly, judges, public servants, and GiC appointments — provide as they speak to, and act upon issues such as immigration and refugee concerns, multicultural and citizenship matters, and issues of racism and discrimination.

And so, Figure 1 contrasts the overall visible minority population, the visible minority citizen population and the number of visible minority candidates and MPs from the last three general elections. We used the census data that were closest to the election period in question (for example, the 2016 census for the 2015 and 2019 elections). Finally, we did not control for age.

The population-based benchmark emphasizes the significant gap between the total population and political representation, while the citizenship-based benchmark shows that representation has become closer to the numbers of those eligible to hold public office.

Figure 2 contrasts the Indigenous population with the number of visible minority candidates and MPs. (Indigenous People are dealt with separately in census data from people from visible minority groups). Again, we used the census data that were closest to the election period in question. Citizenship is not a relevant benchmark in this case.

Figure 3 contrasts the representation of the different visible minority groups, showing considerable variation whether using the population-based or citizenship-based benchmark. Some groups are relatively well represented as candidates and MPs (South Asian, Arab and West Asian), some are under-represented, particularly the Filipino community. In general, groups that are concentrated geographically tend to have more candidates from their group, such as South Asians in Brampton or Chinese in Richmond. Often, the three major parties run candidates from a particular visible minority group where there is that geographic concentration.

Given that the percentage of visible minority candidates exceeds the percentage of visible minority MPs, (16.8 versus 14.8 percent), this may suggest the persistence of certain barriers, such as some parties nominating some of their visible minority candidates in unwinnable ridings. Note that the percentage of Black candidates is about twice the percentage of Black MPs, the largest gap among visible minorities.

Figure 4 broadens the analysis to also cover senator, judicial, public servant employment and Governor in Council appointments, contrasting the representation gaps for each category using both the population-based and citizenship-based benchmarks.

Both benchmarks aim at measuring progress in political and official representation and integration. The population-based benchmark is simpler to measure but more importantly, is more inclusive given that it covers political participation of both citizens and non-citizens and the aspirational goal that public institutions should reflect the entire population. The citizenship-based approach, however, provides a more accurate eligibility benchmark of representation.

As such, both approaches have their relative advantages and limitations, their applicability dependent upon what the researcher wishes to emphasize.

The larger message, however, remains that while Canada compares favourably to most countries in terms of the inclusivity of its political processes and representation of immigrants and visible minorities, gaps still persist, and especially for particular groups such as Black Canadians. This suggests that systemic barriers continue to restrict access to power and influence for important segments of the population.

The data on visible minority candidates and MPs are taken from the analysis carried out by the authors, Samara Canada and the Hill Times for the 2019 election and Jerome Black’s analysis for previous elections for the four largest parties (Conservative Party of Canada, Liberal Party of Canada, New Democratic Party, Bloc Québécois). For 2019, adding candidates from the Green Party of Canada and the People’s Party of Canada, the percentage of visible minority candidates was 16.8 percent.

Photo: Thousands of people rallied on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, protesting racism and police brutality, on June 5, 2020. Shutterstock/By Bing Wen

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Jerome H. Black
Jerome H. Black is a retired member, and former chair, of McGill’s Department of Political Science. Over the years he has carried out research and published in the areas of Canadian political behaviour, strategic voting, women and politics, and, more recently, the experience of ethno-racial minorities in Canadian politics.
Andrew Griffith
Andrew Griffith is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Environics Institute. He was director general of Citizenship and Multiculturalism (now Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada). The author of Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism (2013), he blogs at Multiculturalism Meanderings.

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